1: Alejandro

-Zoey-

Standing by my locker, I clung to my books like a life raft, trying not to drown in the sea of people pushing me back. In-between two girls' shoulders, I saw today's usual parade: the hometown celebrity Justin, walking hand in hand with his queen bee honey Heather. As usual, he was just smiling and waving while Heather scowled and foamed like a rabid pit bull.

If only Heather would smile; she was always that much prettier when she did.

It took close to five minutes for the crowd to disperse. Something gripped and tugged at my heart as I watched the other students disperse, finding their friends and collective cliques. Everybody seemed so...happy. They all had somebody to confide in and talk to. How badly I wanted to walk up to somebody. Anybody, really.

Would it be so bad if I said a simple "hello" to somebody? Just the thought made my knees start to wobble dangerously. I could manage hello, but I couldn't strike up a conversation to save my life.

It was as if I were toxic or diseased in some way...

Fourteen years of my miserable life spent here in Cress and I didn't even have one friend. Everybody who'd even kind of gotten close to me had moved away. Almost as if the hand of fate had some sort of demented vendetta against me...

In a lot of my classes today I'd heard a bunch of girls squealing and cooing over the new guy.

Finally got to see him, in the flesh, in English class. He's tan, tall, and muscular with pale green eyes and shoulder length brown hair. In a way, he's cute, but at the same time, he's a shameless flirt. But...I'm not really looking for a boyfriend. I'm looking for a friend, even if it is just a casual one. Some part of me relents at the fact that I'd shiver and melt like the girls he's flirting with if he just called me "friend"; not even him, but just anybody. Anyone in this cruel world.

I practically spent the entire class hour contemplating whether or not I even wanted to talk to him. It was so pathetic, playing out every worst scenario in my head. As soon as the class bell rang, I decided to just take the risk anyway. I was so close to being depressed about my situation I needed to do something, right?

Outside of the classroom, I caught up to him and lightly tapped him on the shoulder.

"Hey!" I said, with a bright smile and a small wave. "I'm Zoey."

He caught me completely off-guard when he reached out, took my hand, and lightly kissed it. "Mucho gusto," he said, smiling in a charming way. "Me llamo Alejandro."

Even if I didn't quite understand what he'd just said, I could feel myself blushing. I blinked a few times, confused, and the lump in my throat just grew bigger.

"Forgive me for being so forward, but you're very pretty," he continued.

I knew he was a flirt, but I hadn't expected him to flirt with...me?

"Thank you?" My tone made it sound like a question. I was crashing and burning. Badly!

"You can't be unfamiliar with compliments, chica," he went on.

I couldn't help wondering why he was flirting with me. I had watched people enough that I could tell when guys were flirting with girls; I'd even been unnaturally jealous a few times. But I'd never expected anyone to flirt with me. Why me? Why now? The questions made me silent. He quirked an eyebrow.

"Are you alright, Zoey?" he asked.

Hearing him say my name made my cheeks light up like Chinese lanterns. "Yeah," I replied, smiling at the sudden light spreading inside me.

"I'd like to continue our conversation, but not here," he said, hand resting on his hip. "Care to join me for lunch today?"

"Sure!" I nodded.

He led the way, trying to keep up casual conversation. This was the first time I'd ever had a real conversation with anybody for the longest time! I tried not to look like an idiot, but even when I did, it didn't seem to bother Alejandro too much. We ended up spending the entire lunchtime together; he was so interesting and so charming he consumed my full attention. By the end of lunch, I knew that both of his parents had been diplomats at one point, that his favorite food was Spanish rice, and that he'd been the South American skateboarding champ.

He was so out of my league. Some part of my brain kept nagging at me that this was too good to be true, but I wanted to believe in reality so badly, I made my doubts shut up. I felt like I'd just found a good friend! The sheer thrill of it kept me blushing and my heart pumping. When the next bell rang, my head was swimming. Oh, I really didn't want to stop talking to Alejandro!

Apparently, he felt the same way. "I'll see you at lunch again tomorrow, Zoey?"

"Definitely!" I replied, nodding for extra emphasis.

That night, I found myself crashing into a slew of feelings I never thought I'd experience. No matter how hard I tried, Alejandro's smiling face just kept appearing in my mind, over and over and over. The way he respected me, the way he carried himself; just everything about him. Within the course of mere hours, I was seeing what all of the other lovesick girls saw in him. And, even if I had lots of competition, from the way he'd focused so intently on me with those eyes...

Delusional. I'm so delusional. I fell asleep, hugging these bizarre feelings close to my heart.

I imagined myself opening my locker, pulling out my books. Then, as silent and unexpected as the Phantom of the Opera, he appeared behind me. When I turned around again, I gasped, then smiled.

"Hey Zoey," he said in his kind, polite voice. "Can I walk you to class?"

"Sure!" I smile and nod, starting to take off. But before I can take another step, he takes the books out of my hands.

"I'll carry these for you," he said.

We walked, side by side, to my first hour class, talking about my favorite band of all time, The Beatles.

Unlike most of the kids I'd overheard talking about music, his favorite musician wasn't a rapper or a generic pop star. It was Elton John. And his favorite song of all time was "Someday Out of the Blue."

"What's your favorite song by The Beatles?" I asked, curious.

"Let me show you," he replied coyly as he reached down and grabbed my hand. My heart stirred, unfolding like the silken wings of a butterfly. As I expected, my hand barely fit in his bigger hand, but for some reason it felt warm and just right being there.

Way too soon, we'd reached my class. Kindly, he escorted me in and placed my books on my desk top. When I looked up at him, I frowned, wishing he was in this class just so I could talk the hour away with him about anything and everything. As I sat down, I looked up at him and just his facial expression was enough to reveal that he was thinking the same thing I was.

"I'll see you again at lunch," he assured me, smiling softly.

"Okay!" I cheered, wearing a megawatt smile.

I woke up the next day with a warm, happy feeling in my chest...Mmmm.

I don't know why, but I'm craving chocolate chip cookies. The morning passed by in a bright, vibrant gush. Something felt different, better. My thoughts were being churned up and spun in a blender set on high. Nothing significant came to mind and I really couldn't focus or think straight, but it didn't really matter. All that mattered was English class and what happened after it.

For some reason, my universe was centered around the prospects of a friendship, or better yet, a budding romance. As soon as I got to English, I started looking around for Alejandro. There he was, near the front. I tried to nab a seat next to him, but a redhead beat me to it.

Kind of bummed, I found a seat as close as I could. As soon as class started, I scribbled a note on a piece of notebook paper, asking Alejandro who his favorite musician was. A topic inspired by a cool dream I had last night (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). If I couldn't talk to him verbally, I'd talk through handwriting; I just hope he can read my chicken scratch!

When I finished scribbling, I folded the paper and then flicked it over to him. It slid across the floor...and landed at the feet of a scrawny, nerdy looking guy sitting behind Alejandro. He turned around and picked up the paper, then looked over at me with curious dark eyes, hidden behind glasses. Pursing his lips, he unfolded the piece of paper and scanned it. For a second, my stomach knotted in fear; he was going to tell the teacher!

Instead, I heard a pen click and then about a minute later, the paper landed back on my desk, folded into the shape of a crane. I just stared at it, confused, and then looked back up. The scrawny guy was smiling at me and started making subtle gestures, encouraging me to unfold the paper. So I did.

In very professional looking script, he'd written:

Hi! I'm Cameron. I'm not sure if this was intended for me, but I hope you don't mind. I know a guy who's had a really big crush on you since last year; he just hasn't had the guts to admit it! His name's Mike and he's a really good friend of mine. He's probably going to kill me for this, but I just can't stand seeing him so miserable...I've been meaning to talk to you in person since yesterday, but I didn't really get a chance to.

After reading through the note, I felt my heart jump a little. Another too good to be true moment! Guiltily, I looked at Alejandro-but as soon as I did, I saw the redhead sitting next to him lean in and peck him on the cheek when the teacher wasn't looking. Fantasy popped like a bubble.

...Oh God, why did I suddenly feel like crying? I reached up and placed my face in my hands, running my fingers over my nose, my cheeks, my lips. Tears were already collecting and I could feel my emotional high suddenly descending, plummeting like a roller coaster car. No way could I deny that redhead was claiming him. I'd known that he was popular with the ladies. My original intention was only to be friends with him, but then, after getting a taste of what he was like...I'd wanted more.

I tried to keep myself in check, started gnawing on one of my fingernails. That was when I noticed Cameron shooting me a concerned look, brows furrowed. His expression caught me off-guard. That wasn't pity in his eyes; it was genuine concern. Part of me started feeling wary. His letter might be some kind of childish ploy, but for some unknown reason I just couldn't help wanting to believe it wasn't.

Snared in-between an intense rush of self-pity and urgency, I scribbled a note to Cameron:

I don't know...

Those three words were the true blue description of how I felt, in a succinct nutshell. Haphazardly, I folded the note back up and tossed it back to Cameron.

Despite my initial disappointment, I looked back over at Alejandro and the redhead; I must be some kind of masochist because it just killed me inside seeing any more. I saw him sliding the tip of his boot to touch her sandal, saw him reach out and take some of the strands of her hair, run them through his fingers. She was giggling, blushing, batting at him. They didn't care who was looking now. They were so lucky the teacher had become engrossed by something on her desk.

My cheeks were flaring; teeth gritting. That should be me, not her.

Suddenly, another note from Cameron landed on my desk, not as crazily folded as before, though.

Are you okay?

Toss the note back.

No.

The rest of the class period continued like that: Alejandro flirting with a girl that wasn't me, me trying way too hard to ignore it, Cameron flicking notes to me and me flicking them back. All of this and not once did the teacher notice!

C: Sorry to pry, but...are you upset with Alejandro?

Z: The world probably knows that by now...but, yes.

C: My friend Noah is pretty good at reading people. He knew Alejandro was a player type as soon as he saw him.

Z: I knew he was a flirt...but a player?

C: Yeah. He's been flirting with every girl in school. He even has at least five dates just this Saturday! You're lucky you're not in the running to be another notch on his bed post...

Z: Yuck!

C: Sorry for such coarse language. Let's change the subject. Gossip is really aggravating to me. Your original question was about musicians, right? My favorite group is Owl City! How about you?

Z: The Beatles.

C: My mom plays retro music all the time! I've heard a few of their songs, but I don't really know much. Mike does, though. He even has a vinyl record of one of their albums!

Z: SERIOUSLY?

C: Yeah!

Z: That is so cool.

It was really hard talking through notes, but the more we passed back and forth, the more excited I got. Alejandro might have disappointed me, but Cameron sure wasn't. Just when I passed the last note to him, the bell rang. Somehow, I found myself sidling up next to Cameron and walking with him to the cafeteria, discussing how much he loved techno and electronic based music since it made him think of machines and technology. The way his eyes sparkled showed how passionate he was about it.

Once we reached a table and sat down, Cameron looked like he was barely able to stop talking. Talk about making fast friends! And a really interesting, quirky one at that, too, which really made things that much better. Just as Cameron was about to dive into a spiel about something else, somebody cleared their throat.

The sound made us both stop talking. When I turned to see who'd done it...I was staring at a guy with dark eyes and spiky black hair. At first, he was just kind of expressionless, then his face split into an awkward, kind of dorky smile. Just looking at him, my heart skipped a beat.

How in the world could I have fallen for a smooth-talking Casanova when there's way cuter faces, like this one? This was the kind of guy I thought about in my romantic fantasies, the guy I'd pined for as a little girl. How could I have missed that he was walking down the hall, in the same school as me?

Unbidden, I blushed and smiled. "Hi, I'm Zoey."

"I'm Mike," he replied, his smile growing bigger.